What Is Dead Internet Theory? And Could It Change The Web Forever?

If you're not creeped out, you're probably not paying attention.

Ever been spammed by bot content when you’re trying to browse news stories on X, or stumbled across creepy AI-generated photos‘ on Facebook that lack context but still have thousands of likes? If so, it’s likely you’re seeing the dead internet theory in action.

First coined in 2021, the dead internet theory used to be a fringe internet conspiracy maintaining that algorithmic curation was being used to manipulate the general user. Now, at a time when AI-generated content is rampant and bots account for around half of all internet traffic, the concept has taken on a whole new meaning, and is argued by many to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As the lines between human and bot-generated content become increasingly blurred, we break down everything you need to know about the dead internet theory, including its legitimacy, and its potential implications on the future of the web.

Dead Internet Theory Explained

The dead internet theory believes that content on the internet – including on social media platforms – is predominantly being produced by AI and bots, rather than by humans.

The theory first surfaced on underground platforms like 4Chan and Wizardchan in the early 2020s, at a time when algorithms were playing an increasingly central role in how content was curated on the web.

Surfshark logo🔎 Want to browse the web privately? 🌎 Or appear as if you're in another country?
Get a huge 86% off Surfshark with this special tech.co offer.See deal button

In its early years, many proponents of the online conspiracy theory believed that algorithmically produced content, combined with bot activity, produced a tailored online experience designed to serve the interests of powerful entities, rather than the average person. However, while this view is still held by some more hard-line netizens, the term is predominantly used to to the describe the takeover of artificially-generated content on the web.

Skip to 2024, and the generative AI tidal wave, triggered by the release of ChatGPT, has given the theory more credence than ever. Not only have tools like Google Gemini and Dall-E made it easier than ever for users to create AI content, but the rapidly advancing technology has also led to a bizarre phenomenon where bots self-produce AI content on social media – and the results are creepy.

How the Dead Internet Theory Has Social Media Even More Bizzare

If you still use Facebook or follow AI fails, you might have come across the AI-generated car crash called Shrimp Jesus. The images, which depict images of Jesus Christ made up of various seaborne crustaceans like shrimps and crabs, have mysteriously garnered thousands of likes on the platform, and left even more regular users scratching their heads.

Bizarre images have been popping up on social media

Bizarre images have been popping up on social media

So what’s their deal? Well, while images like shrimp Jesus have clearly been created by user-led image generators like DALL-E or Midjourney, in most cases, the content farms are being run by bots, not humans.

As most of the activity seen on these posts is generated by fellow bots, many experts believe these creepy AI-generated images were designed to attract more organic engagement to the spam accounts. It’s common for images with successful responses to be reproduced with slight variations too, in an attempt for these accounts to game the Facebook algorithm and have their content reach a wider audience.

But shock and entertainment value aside, what is the end game of engagement farming?

Should You Be Concerned?

While the majority of AI click-bait images should be considered harmless, the mass production of this spam content could also have more sinister implications, according to some experts.

For example, a report from the Stanford Internet Observatory found that many accounts behind AI images like Shrimp Jesus are guilty of trying to sell products that don’t exist, getting users to divulge personalized details from users, or stealing the pages from other Facebook users in the first place.

The majority of users interacting with this content also appear to be oblivious that images aren’t being generated by humans, emphasizing the importance of platforms like Facebook labelling this type of content, and ensuring additional transparency methods are rolled out going forward.

However, contrary to the beliefs of more radical proponents of the dead internet theory, it’s very unlikely that the recent proliferation of AI content is part of a pre-meditated effort to control and manipulate regular internet users. More feasibly, it is a symptom of speedy technological advancements outpacing regulations surrounding its use, as the US government continues to play catch up when it comes to AI regulation.

With the US unlikely to announce sweeping AI laws anytime soon, we recommend staying clear from spammy-looking AI-generated content on social media platforms and reporting any activity that looks suspicious or potentially harmful. As cybercriminals continue to use artificial intelligence as their weapon of choice, we also advise keeping your eyes peeled for increasingly advanced phishing attempts like AI voice cloning and AI social media scams.

Learn more about AI scams, and how to avoid them here.

Did you find this article helpful? Click on one of the following buttons
We're so happy you liked! Get more delivered to your inbox just like it.

We're sorry this article didn't help you today – we welcome feedback, so if there's any way you feel we could improve our content, please email us at contact@tech.co

Written by:
Isobel O'Sullivan (BSc) is a senior writer at Tech.co with over four years of experience covering business and technology news. Since studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL), she’s been a regular contributor to Market Finance’s blog and has also worked as a freelance tech researcher. Isobel’s always up to date with the topics in employment and data security and has a specialist focus on POS and VoIP systems.
Explore More See all news
Back to top
close Step up your business video conferencing with GoToMeeting, our top rated conferencing app – try it free for 14 days Try GoToMeeting Free